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Dancing isn't just for stars

You don't have to be a celebrity -- or of a certain age -- to join the growing throngs of ballroom dancers.

August 04, 2005|Lynne Heffley | Times Staff Writer

OUTSIDE, traffic whizzes by. Inside, music pours from speakers, mixing with a hubbub of voices and the shuffle and slide of shoes on a wooden floor.

A crowd of adults, young, old, all shapes, all sizes, is reflected in mirrored walls. They're eyeballing peppy young instructors coaching them through step-by-step deconstructions of the waltz, the cha-cha, the samba:

"Quick-quick slow, quick-quick slow."

"No looking at the floor."

"Ladies, your hand should be a bird, perching on a tree."

Suddenly, there is quick movement among the measured steps at this storefront Arthur Murray dance studio in Sherman Oaks. A boy in dress shirt, slacks and groovy wide belt tangos by, guiding his older, taller partner through the maze of adults with a romantic flourish.

Twelve-year-old Brandon Krieger may not realize it, but he's part of a nationwide phenomenon: Ballroom dancing is hot again.

After decades of a low-profile existence, ballroom dancing is attracting adults, and kids even younger than Brandon, into a transformative world of ladies and gentlemen, a place of rhythmic, formalized social exchange with its own rules of etiquette.

This recent surge in interest is largely media-driven, sparked first by last year's Richard Gere-Jennifer Lopez remake of the Japanese film "Shall We Dance." The surprise hit documentary "Mad Hot Ballroom" added fuel.

So did ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" earlier this summer. The top-rated reality series was a cross-generational success with viewers, who tuned in each week to see celebrities pair off and train with professional ballroom dancers, then compete.

"In the past, when you mentioned ballroom dancing, people would think of elevator music and grandma," says Esther Freeman, president of the United States Amateur Ballroom Dancers Assn. "Now, people have seen that it's exciting, it's athletic, it's beautiful."

Business grew by nearly 30% in the first six months of the year at Arthur Murray studios nationwide, according to John Kimmins, executive vice president of Arthur Murray International, a sponsor of the ABC show.

Many franchise and independent studio owners in Southern California have experienced a similarly noticeable influx of new students.

In San Diego, Ginger Sarmento, who owns San Diego's Strictly for Fun studio, reports an increase in interest, especially among young people. One woman called to ask if age 3 1/2 was too young to take lessons. (Sarmento told the woman that 5 years old was the cutoff, but gave in, she says, when convinced that the child wouldn't be denied.)

Leo Cendejas, owner of Ballroom Is Back! Dance Studio in Costa Mesa, says that because of the ABC show, "normal people" of all ages are realizing that they can learn to dance, "if not for the social elegance of it, then for its competitive athletic demands."

Cendejas estimates that his business has jumped by 20%, with a noticeable increase in parents calling about classes for their offspring. He attributes that to "Mad Hot Ballroom," which documents the experiences of fifth-graders at three New York City schools as they prepare for a dance competition against their peers.

BALLROOM dancing by definition involves holding, and being held by a partner. It includes dances that require "traveling" across the floor; among them: the waltz, foxtrot, quickstep, pasodoble, tango, swing, cha-cha, rumba and samba.

Ask engaged couples, long a significant part of dance studios' bread-and-butter income, and they'll explain that you can't pick it up in an hour. It takes practice and time to even begin to approach Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers elegance.

Why then, are so many people suddenly willing not only to watch, but to invest their time, money and energy in an activity that has for the most part remained under the pop culture radar for decades?

The answers are as varied as students' dance class couture: executive chic, floaty skirts, sexy dresses and high heels; shorts, bare midriffs, torn jeans, sneakers and flip-flops.

The appeal of ballroom dancing is "so many things," says Perimeg Judith, owner of 3rd Street Dance studio in L.A. "There's an etiquette and a courtship involved that I think people are yearning for. It's a way to express passion. It's a safe way to have intimacy."

Partner-dancing also crosses age ranges, ethnicities and professional lines, says 3rd Street's manager, Michael Lipson.

"If a guy knows how to lead, if he's graceful, he could be overweight, he could be 80 years old, but if his partner feels he understands the dance, that's all that matters."

"I say it's the ultimate, three-minute affair," Freeman says. "You don't know his name, you don't know where he came from. He holds you in his arms, you feel like you're flying and then it's over. You're touched, you're smiled at. I can travel around the world and we speak the same language when the music starts." Insecurities, anxieties and loss can play a role in the decision to step on the dance floor.

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